Sunday, July 26, 2020

5 Strategies for Surviving the Age of Ambiguous Loss

I recently listened to Pauline Boss's interview with Krista Tippett on one of my favorite podcasts, On Being. Boss long ago named the feeling I've been having around COVID that I haven't had a name for-- the million thousand heartbreaks, from national to trivial, that I can't square or reconcile. I have been struggling to figure out how I'm feeling about the state of the world and what we're living through. I didn't realize how helpful it would be to have a name for it-- ambiguous loss: that feeling of unresolved grief that comes with a tragedy that has no reconciliation or ritualistic processing.

Without a big election to overturn the rampant evil of our time, without a vaccine to help me hope for the end of this lockdown, without any resolution to all of the deaths and economic suffering from COVID, and the trauma of all of the losses for my kids, I have been feeling a pent-up sense of sorrow, despair, dashed faith, and anger at the people causing all of it. Ambiguous grief as a concept helps me realize that the feeling I'm having is grief.

Your stories and strategies around ambiguous loss | by Catherine ...

Yesterday I called one of my best friends, Betsy Rosenbaum (who happens to write a brilliant blog when she has time and inspiration), and she shared the first of my cries with me. She was the first person to help me think of my feelings as grief. I was explaining to her that I felt an overwhelming feeling of sorrow and anguish, and that I was desperate for a friend to hold my heart for me. I explained to her that I worry that I would never see my parents again. I worry that my daughter would be traumatized by this. I worry that I may lose my job. I worry that so many people will suffer so badly. I worry that the country is devolving into an authoritarian state. I worry that the election won't work. I worry that martial law is happening in Portland. I worry about the myriad forms of violence, suffering, and even death that this president has put in motion. I'm so angry, so worried, so sad. Many of us are, I know, but I hadn't really grasped how intensely I was feeling these things. (When it all began, I wrote about "A Million Tiny Heartbreaks," but this feeling has only gotten worse.)

But if what we're feeling is grief, as Boss and Betsy reminded me, there are strategies we can use to cope, and I guess I have to start using them. Here are the ones that make the most sense to me. I don't do them as much as I should. But I know they help when I do.

1. Connect authentically with loved ones. Even though zoom and Skype aren't the same as being with people in person, COVID offers an opportunity to remember that our wellbeing relies on human connection. We aren't individual islands, as capitalism and the American Dream would have us believe. We are ecological and social beings. Get to know your neighbors. Get to know your non-human neighbors. Let those you love know it, and tell them why. Under COVID, this is the hardest one; it's ironic! We are beset with a condition that makes us suffer and disallows us from using the tool we most need to navigate suffering-- relationships. Don't let this defeat you. Relationships are all around us anyway. With fierceness, build them. Birds, parents, children, molecules, bacteria, comets-- all of it.

2. Create rituals.  Our habits may be becoming very boring. I know that I feel really bored by my life right now. There's no purpose, no Thing to Look Forward To, no mission. My kids and I just languish languidly through the days, trying desperately to find value in anything, and mostly getting jazzed by a new movie or recipe. When I wake up, I try to think of how the day will bring many boring things, and I try to ritualize them-- dishes, laundry, the sun coming out, meals, my daily shower. I try to make these rituals feel really meaningful by being grateful that I have the privilege of having them at all. I imbue them with a redolence of sacredness, despite their mundaneness. I do this by noticing them and being grateful for them. That's all it takes to make something a ritual. "Here is this thing I get to do. It may feel mundane, but I'm so lucky to feel that way about it. In fact, making this meal is an act of faith, an act of love, an act of weaving people together, an act of honor for the people who made it possible...." Injecting sacredness into my mundane life feels good.

3. Focus on what you can control. I really, really, really hate our president. I am so resentful. I am so worried. I am so FREAKED OUT.  How can this person exist? How can so many people love him? How can he be the person in charge of our country in the middle of COVID? Rabbit-hole warning.

Deep breath.

I can control my garden. I can control my body. I can control my kids' filter on their world. I can control my friends' and family's feelings of connection and support. I can control the feeling of hope and support in the people in my circle. One day at a time. Some days are worse than others. Some days I languish in sorrow. I wish I could cry more. But when I'm in those states, I turn to the people directly around me and realize I have a HUGE impact on them, starting with my kids and partner. Starting with myself.

4. Understand how chemicals work in your brain to create emotions.  Remember oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine? Oh right! FUCK YEAH!!!! I LOVE THOSE FUCKERS! Eat good food, love on animals and people, exercise. It's really that simple. (No, it's not, but if you focus on these things, it will help launch you into other amazing things).

5. Answer some "grounding questions" for yourself. My grounding questions vary, and I don't answer them every day, but on occasion, it really helps me on a really bad day to write some answers down, just to anchor myself. A few examples of grounding questions are:

  • what is one thing I can do today to give me pleasure?
  • what boring thing may happen today (e.g. the sun coming out) can I imbue with sacredness?
  • who is one person I can reach out to today?
  • what is one thing I can do today to honor those who have helped me?
  • what would it take to find peace in the midst of what is going on?
  • what do I do in my day that does not serve my wellbeing?
  • what can I do to move my body?
  • what can I do to invite or create beauty or humor in my day?

Recently, I felt really low. I realized I needed to write a few grounding questions out. I focused on the sun coming out-- I decided I would mark it by stopping whatever I was doing and just recognize it.

I knew that I would have to make dinner for my family. I decided I would make a ritual out of it and try to appreciate all the labor and nature that went into the meal.

These are examples of that Robin Wall Kimmerer calls in her book Braiding Sweetgrass "practical reverence." It's a practice, and I'm feeling the need for it ever more in this time.

Similarly, Annie Dillard has written,

“How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.” 

How You Spend Your Days – Saturday Inspiration

Sometimes, I feel Dillard's quote is too much pressure-- really, you want me to find existential value in standing in line at the DMV? At other times, like in COVID, I find this to be a guiding light, breaking things down to the basics. When all things are up for grabs, when all that is solid melts into air, when the ground we stand on is shaky, when everything is falling apart-- who are we, and what do our lives mean? The only answer to that is in how we spend our days.  Each day is our life in miniature. Some wasted time, some debauchery, waaaaay too much wine, some illumination, some connection, some awe. Some of this we have control over. If you knew that how you spent your day was the meaning of your life, what would you do?

5.  Spread it. Good vibrations are contagious. There is science that proves this, but I'm just going to leave it at this: in spite of all of the shit going on, your love, compassion, and skillful actions will make others want to do the same. The planet, social justice, your family, and the future of democracy all require you to imagine the radical awesomeness that this rupturous moment is creating. If there ever was a moment to rise to the occasion rather than shrivel into despair, this is it. We see it in the George Floyd protest streets, we see it in AOC's speech about Rep. Yoho's assault, we see it in our teachers, we see it in our kids. Some days, we can just wallow. But on the others, our ability to cultivate optimism is not just a matter of self-preservation; it is a matter of societal viability. After you've had a good cry with your best friend, take your vulnerability and faith in progress on the road; we are here to hold your heart.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

A Million Tiny Heartbreaks

You know that feeling when you’re on the precipice of a cliff, and you’re looking down, and up, and around, and you start to lose the ability to perceive scale, distance, or what the artists call perspective? Scientists call it vertigo. That sense of dizziness that happens when you can’t tell what’s close, what’s far, what’s big, what’s small, and the liquid in your eardrums responds to your perception of reality as if you’re falling.

There are so many heartbreaking results of coronavirus. The deaths. The canceled graduation ceremonies. The doctor parents who lose custody because they’re working long hours. The canceled conferences and new book tours. The kids who need the structure (or lunches) at school. The birthday parties suspended. The lifelines of socializing at nursing homes. The inability to access technology among those who need it the most, like grandma, or that kid in your class who has no internet. The most marginalized becoming even more marginalized because our country values money more than humanity.

A few heartbreaks from today: a sense of panic during the previously mundane activity of walking my dog at the beach. Going to the store. The plants dying in my abandoned office. My child’s sixth birthday celebrated alone. Seven zoom meetings where my beloved colleagues are all on the brink of tears, while my children fend for themselves. I forgot snack time.

The majority of my college students who, for reasons of sanity or perhaps disability, require face-to-face instruction and are now floundering in anxiety and depression, and cannot carry on “continuity of instruction,” much less eating and sleeping.

How to Help Kids Cope with Canceled Graduation - PureWow

A million tiny heartbreaks spiral out from each other. That canceled birthday party turns into a canceled alternative at the zoo, which turns into a canceled alternative at the park, which turns into a canceled play date, which turns into a canceled birthday. Rites of passage, poof. Two of my cousins were supposed to get married in April. Both canceled. All of those seniors graduating. The mini-traumas of all those kids separated from their classes and teachers, never going to finish the grade they were in, wondering if they’ll be held back. Proms, tests, afterschool Lord of the Flies daycare, and all those other signs of humanity’s inability to be humane-- canceled. And yeah, it feels weird to be nostalgic about even those things, but it’s because I can feel the anxiety it is producing in all of the young people about how unstable life really is, even if they hate those things.

Shock doctrine is happening across the land with higher education. The precarity of a year ago feels quaint now, compared to the current attack on quality education. Faculty, staff, face-to-face classes are all “fat” that needs to get cut, so that higher education can regain its credibility in the current anti-intellectual climate. COVID is the perfect excuse. But wherefore administrator salary cuts?  When pigs fly.

All those million tiny heartbreaks of all those students across the land, going online, losing their contact with peers, campus staff, and faculty, wondering whether next semester will be the same, wondering whether a degree in anything matters anyway. My colleagues whose jobs are contingent upon a working visa or their health; the precariousness of it all is earth-shatteringly stark now. All the million tiny aftershocks—heartbreaking.

On the news: that cancer patient’s life is shortened by not receiving “inessential” medical treatment during this time. A high school senior’s athletic career has just been upended by this blip of history. A woman whose home life is abusive now has to spend all…day…long…. at home. Elderly people rely on social lifelines; their weekly bridge sessions and caregiver visitations-- canceled.

The fact that we’re talking about end-of-life plans with our 10-year-olds, and explaining to our 3-year olds the purpose of wearing masks in public—incomprehensible madness. The thousands of our loved ones, dying. ALONE. DYING ALONE.

A million tiny heartbreaks are making me dizzy. I can’t tell whether the fact that my children won’t see their teacher again is equivalent to my grandma never seeing any family member ever again, and whether that’s equivalent to the fact that 22 million people are unemployed, and that people are lining up by the hundreds for food. FOOD. Which is worse? My missed book talks or my kid’s extroversion being traumatically thwarted, or the homeless in my community not eating, or abortion rights getting chopped in the deal, or the fact that I can’t take a break from cooking anymore, or that COVID is being embraced by some as evidence of the rapture? The refrigerated morgue trucks lined up outside the New York City hospitals to hold the dead, or turning a whole generation of children into misanthropic germaphobes?

We are all sacrificing so much, even if it’s just time alone. Scale out from there, and we’re sacrificing our professional lives, our achievements we’ve worked hard on, the minimal benefits the state thinks we deserve, our domestic relationships, our physical health, our values around family and religion, our faith in institutions, our faith in leadership.

I’ll never forget the moment in all of this when the thought first occurred to me that I might not see my mom again. Remember that moment? We’ve all had it by now. The proximity of this threat encroached day by day, closer and closer. Scaling in, dizzying, like those strobe light that cause seizures. Even though I know nobody who has died, I’ve absorbed a million tiny heartbreaks—relationships crumbling under the pressure, hard-won collegiality fizzling in the moment of stress, my thirty non-graduating college seniors, and all those kids becoming accustomed to the “new normal” of isolation and wondering if they’ll ever see their grandparents again.

What about the real suffering, you ask? The ways this crisis is exposing the inequalities that already exist? The ways that the virus is affecting incarcerated people, detained migrants, the homeless, disabled, and people in countries with even worse medical infrastructure and effective leadership? YES. A million times a million times a million huge heartbreaks. Bring on the vertigo. One of my dear friends has stage four metastatic breast cancer, and COVID is making it hard for her to get her treatments, potentially shortening her life, not to mention her compromised immune system and the feeling of having a contamination target on her back.

People may say it’s a time to be humane, compassionate, our best selves. Meanwhile, companies, universities, and other employers are using shock doctrine to streamline and consolidate resources in the name of “innovation”, “synergy”, and of course, as if it even needs to be breathed, “efficiency.” Call it what it is- the privatization of the university to produce employable workforces in a neoliberal market economy. The structuralizing of disposable and precarious employees.

Woe is me, an academic, I know, but if it’s happening in the academy, you can bet it’s even worse elsewhere. It’s all over the news. Carnage. As of today, 22 million people have filed for unemployment. Twenty-two million heartbreaks are ripples in the pond, and we will all feel them vibrating through our communities, wallets, hearts, lungs, schools, favorite restaurants, hobbies, churches, and habits. We will feel them as a million tiny heartbreaks, and no small amount of really, really big ones.

 How Being Kind to the Unkind Sends Ripples of Positivity Around ...

Monday, April 6, 2020

Environmental Studies Program Statement on Racism and Coronavirus

As the news about coronavirus overwhelms us with worry and fear about our loved ones and the spike in suffering around the world, it may be tempting to find “silver linings” in news about how great the environment is doing, now that humans are leaving it alone. Our news feeds are full of these scenes: China enjoying a level of air quality it has not experienced since it became the industrial heart of the world, critters braving landscapes that are usually occupied by lots of people, fuel consumption at an all time low, less noise and light pollution, the list goes on. 

Meanwhile, since the U.S. President began calling coronavirus the “China virus,” incidents of violence against Asians, Asian-Americans, Chinese, and Chinese-Americans have skyrocketed. One family, including a 2-year old and a 6-year old, was stabbed by a person who thought they were Chinese and that ending their lives would help prevent the spread of coronavirus. 

The Environmental Studies Program at HSU firmly condemns such acts of violence. Further, we want to expose the racism inherent in claims about the “silver lining” of nature’s rebounding, and articulate the links between these claims and such acts of violence. 

Addressing racism and violence against Asian-Americans in this moment is not the job of entities focused on hate crimes; environmentalists and environmental organizations have a profound responsibility to engage these conversations and reckon with their complicity in legacies of “green hate” and  eco-fascism.” 

A historical perspective of the roots of American environmental ideas is part of this reckoning. Early views of ecology and resource conservation in the mid-19th century were deployed for the purposes of social engineering: America’s finite resources and land was framed by leaders such as Theodore Roosevent and Gifford Pinchot as needing to be preserved, but only for certain people--white, able-bodied, upstanding Anglo-Americans. 

Opinion | White Supremacy Goes Green - The New York Times

In the early 20th-century, these Social Darwinian, Malthusian values led to racist anti-immigration laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, and became the foundation for America’s eugenics movement, which resulted in the genocide of Native Americans and other groups deemed “unfit” for life in an ideal “America.” These values and policies were then emulated by the Nazis as they spread their “blood and soil” ideology, connecting a geopolitics of “lebensraum” (“living room”) with genocide. The earliest environmentalists in America were just as interested in designing what they perceived to be an ideal society and race as they were in preserving and understanding ecosystems. 

We can see resurgances of the racist underpinnings of environmentalism in the 1970s debates about overpopulation and immigration, and Earth First!’s hailing of AIDS as a boon for the environment. In contrast to these moments, the environmental justice movement was born, which aimed to center social justice in environmental considerations, and distinguished itself from these racist arguments coming out of the mainstream environmental movement. Social justice scholars and activists have long observed the “greening of hate,” but it would be a mistake to think the racist agenda of some environmental ideas are a vestige of the past. 

The Environmental Studies Program at HSU seeks to highlight this history in our moment of pandemic precisely because of the growing violence and animosity toward non-white Americans. Some of this aggression is couched in environmental ideas. For example, the shooter in the El Paso mass shooting claimed in his letter that one reason for his desire to kill Mexicans was because of climate change and the resulting “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” 

When we hear arguments that a natural disaster (like a tsunami or hurricane) is nature’s way of cleansing the planet of humans who are reproducing too much, or that a health disaster (like ebola or AIDS) is “nature striking back” at humans for their evil ways, we must stand up against the ongoing use of “nature” to justify violence against marginalized communities. 

People who say that the coronavirus is good for nature are implying, perhaps inadvertently, that the thriving of human life is incompatible with the thriving of nature. Such claims create a zero-sum solution: if we want humans to keep living, then we have to accept the destruction of nature, or vice versa. The latter position opens the door to eco-fascism and reproduces unnecessary and potentially dangerous Cartesian and colonialist ways of seeing the world. Indeed, the very separation of categories like “nature” from “culture” has long been problematic as it has allowed for some people to extract resources, labor, ideas, and more from other people who they equated with nature. But many human groups have thrived alongside nature, and nature alongside them. It is irresponsible and futile to ask people to make a choice between nature or humanity. Asking whether we should save humanity or save nature isn’t the right question, and it overlooks the real problem--colonial-capitalism’s treatment of certain environments and certain people as valuable, while others are disposable.

Touting the rebounding of nature in this context may seem an innocent, non-racist appeal. However, in the context of understanding environmentalism’s racist legacies, we can see that such an appeal creates oversimplified divisions between nature and humans. This binary ignores the ways that communities of color are disproportionately suffering coronavirus outcomes, and have and will continue to disproportionately suffer the effects of environmental degradation, even as they are often the communities who least contribute to that degradation. 

Furthermore, such a binary fails to account for the many ways that many indigenous communities have long lived in ways that enhance ecosystem health, and how colonization has impinged on their ability to continue to do so. A virus like coronavirus is not nature’s way of inoculating itself against all humanity, and when we imagine this to be so, we create conditions for ignoring all of these ways that inequality and difference shape different communities’ access to environmental goods, like the ability to breathe, and costs, including infection.

As we celebrate the planet getting a break from emissions, the EPA is busy rolling back many hard-won environmental protections and moving forward the keystone and other pipelines. This news is nothing to celebrate. Moreover, the fact that more peoples’ lives will be saved by the reduction in emissions than by anything we can do to prevent coronavirus infection suggests that we are focusing on the wrong problem, and ignoring the far larger problem of colonial-capitalism’s reliance on some people being more disposable than others. 

The problem isn’t that nature has been disposable; the problem is about who gets to decide which humans are the most disposable. The coronavirus is not an equalizer. It is exacerbating existing inequalities; the bodies of black and brown people are disproportionately in the jobs that are on the frontlines of risk, such as health workers and farmworkers, are already in positions of legal and medical disenfranchisement (such as in detention camps or prisons), and are suffering the worst health outcomes.

We must stop demonizing a monolithic notion of “humanity” as bad for a monolithic notion of “nature,” and combat the deployment of “the environment” to fuel fears of virus-spreading “others.” 

Instead of thinking about nature temporarily bouncing back, we must be using this dire moment to work for that post-fossil-fuel future, where people are no longer more likely to die of pollution than pandemic. We look to the vision and action of groups like Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project, Indigenous Environmental Network, Just Transition, and admire the local work of Cooperation Humboldt in organizing for the world we are now all the more called to build in this crisis. 

The ENST program at HSU stands with communities of color whose oppression has long been achieved in the name of “preserving nature.” We call on other environmental groups to take action against such violence, and to take the lead on drawing these connections. We amplify the work of groups like Avarna and the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, who are taking such actions. We urge our students, faculty, administrators, and peers to see this moment of crisis as an opportunity for further support of decolonial, abolitionist, and liberatory world-making. 

Just Transition | Indigenous Environmental Network